Oxford Magazine, 2003; 212: 4-6

The educational purpose of multi-disciplinary modular degrees

Bruce Charlton

Modular organisation of degrees has been introduced in many UK universities, and multi-disciplinary undergraduate degrees look set to become the norm throughout the higher education system. This has happened despite the obvious damage this form of curriculum inflicts on the integrity and intellectual standards of the traditional single-discipline bachelor’s degree. Organising the curriculum in discrete modules damages cohesion and intellectual progression, teaching is less integrated and less intense, and it takes longer to bring students to the same level of specialist expertise.

Of course there are 'pragmatic' benefits of multi-disciplinary modular degrees to do with maximising student recruitment and making degrees easier to complete in an era of massive expansion. Many of the new cohort of undergraduates presumably lack the interest and aptitude to contemplate a traditional single discipline degree. Yet the ideal of making degrees easier and more accessible is inadequate as a description of the role of universities or as guidance for good teaching. This merely describes what universities do not do: it fails to give an account of their purpose or ideals. The consequent loss of purpose and ideals is a recipe for cynicism and the erosion of integrity.

At present university teachers only know that they are doing a poorer job of inculcating high level, integrated, critically-informed specialist knowledge - but they do not have any idea what alternative educational goals they should instead be pursuing. If it is accepted that mass higher education is here to stay, we need to ask what the multi-disciplinary modular degree is good for.

A generic education

From a traditional perspective, the introduction of 'pick and mix' modules as the basis for assembling a degree appears to offer little more than a ‘smattering’ of knowledge across an arbitrary range. If true, this would hardly provide an inspiring basis for university teaching, since the mass media and internet can now provide a broad smattering of attractively-packaged ‘facts’ far more cheaply and effectively than a university.

MuIti-disciplinary modular degrees only make educational sense if they provide more than a superficial overview. Clearly, they cannot equal the depth of specialist knowledge provided by a traditional degree nor can they provide so good a training for a specific vocation. But I suggest that multi-disciplinary degrees can provide a valuable generic education - contributing to a process of individual cognitive development which enhances capability over a potentially wide range of specialised activities.

Education in modern societies tends to consist of an ever-longer generic element preceding specialised training. Soon, around half the population will stay in formal education into their early twenties, and decisions about vocational specialisation will (in most cases) be deferred until after graduation. Specialist vocational training will take place mostly on-the-job, or in graduate schools. For instance, in now seems inevitable that both medicine and law will become post-graduate degrees (as indeed they used to be in the UK until the nineteenth century, and have remained in the USA).

The traditional pattern of beginning academic specialisation (and preparation for a career) in the mid-teens is becoming ever less appropriate to the economic structure and psychological demands of the contemporary world. And the idea of trying to match supply with demand for 2 million undergraduates who were narrowly training for specific vocations is enough to induce nightmares. Delayed specialisation is inevitable for most people most of the time. Furthermore, a ‘modernising’ economy usually forces several career changes involving re-training and re-skilling. Most modern university graduates seem destined to become middle-managers of one kind or another, and management is much less secure than the traditional graduate careers, such as grammar school teaching or the old-style civil service administration.

An education in flexible abstraction

Formal, institutional education may be conceptualised as providing a training in abstract, systematic thinking and communication; its social function being to provide a ‘literate’ population able to think abstractly and communicate concisely, unambiguously and comprehensively. This kind of training is necessary because humans are spontaneously animistic and concrete thinkers in whom reasoning is tied to specific practical contexts. In very broad terms, therefore, generic education aims to instil habits of systematic thinking that enable the human animal to function in our alien world. The benefit of abstracting ability is demonstrated in the employment market, where a significantly higher salary is paid for each years experience of higher education (regardless of subject) than for the same time spent at work gaining ‘practical’ experience.

The traditional English bachelor’s degree aimed to impart knowledge of a single, complex abstract system to a very high level, as the best preparation for a lifetime of participation in that field. Furthermore, the single discipline degree was often building onto an already advanced and specialised school education. Of course university degrees also performed a generic educational function which rendered the graduate suitable for a wide range of upper middle class jobs. However, the generic value of disciplinary degrees was mainly a by-product of the high selectivity and elite social status of the traditional university system.

But the English university system is no longer selective, nor do the mass of graduates gain an upper middle class imprimatur. The majority of modern graduates would probably benefit most from an unspecialised degree that enhanced their general aptitude. In particular, most graduates would benefit from a practical training in the ability repeatedly to learn new systems of abstract reasoning, and in the ability to switch frequently between abstract systems.

A graduate with this kind of preparation would arguably posses near ideal skills and aptitudes for surviving and thriving in the modern economy. She would have the negative qualification of not having being ‘captured’ by her expertise in a specific discipline, but more importantly the positive qualification of having become familiar with the business of repeatedly starting afresh to grasp unfamiliar knowledge systems. On graduation she will be open and ready to train for any of a wide range of specialised jobs in a wide range of complex organisations - most of which operate on the basis of abstract managerial systems. The probability of enforced career changes, and the need for repeated re-training and re-skilling, should hold few terrors for such an individual.

The multi-disciplinary modular ideal

A multidisciplinary modular degree would train students in the practice of learning qualitatively differing academic sub-disciplines, presented in conceptually coherent chunks. Each module would constitute a distinctive and distinct abstract system. The essential pre-requisite of a modular subject, that minimal attribute which justifies its inclusion as a module in a multidisciplinary degree, is the quality of internal conceptual coherence. More exactly, a subject must have internal conceptual coherence when it is being taught at the level which a module is able to reach in the system being operated. A module needs to be intellectually self-contained and self-sufficient.

A good modular degree would take the undergraduate through a number of subjects, each with its own distinctive internal logic. By studying several modules in parallel and in sequence the student is encouraged to develop an aptitude at engaging with new abstract systems of thought, switching-between different systems, and rapidly ascending a learning curve to understand the unique character of each system.

In other words, a module should certainly not provide a ‘smattering’ of superficial knowledge. On the contrary, a module must reach sufficient depth to reveal the distinctive nature of its subject; and both subject boundaries and allocated time need to be adjusted to ensure that this is the case.

The role of the university teacher

The most fundamental change produced by multi-disciplinary modular degrees is that the unit of academic teaching becomes the module instead of the degree. The conceptual integrity of the module becomes the paramount concern. Since modules do not build towards a larger unit of discourse, they need to be intellectually free-standing in a way that was neither necessary nor desirable for the ‘courses’ which made up a disciplinary degree.

A further intellectual shift relates to the role of critical thinking. The best traditional degrees aim to inculcate critical thinking about their subject matter. Indeed, such self-critique can be seen as a necessary corrective to the fact that single-discipline degrees are so narrow and partial in their outlook. By contrast, the modular multi-disciplinary degree replaces disciplinary self-criticism with an implicit critique of each discipline by all the other disciplines studied simultaneously or sequentially. Indeed, within-module self-critique may actually be harmful to pedagogic goals when it impedes the aim of providing a coherent abstract system of knowledge over a necessarily limited time span.

Module-based teaching requires the same kind of disciplinary academic expertise as teaching ‘courses’ for traditional degrees, which is why the best US liberal arts colleges continue to pay a premium to employ top-notch academics as their undergraduate teachers, and allow such teachers the conditions to maintain their scholarly and research expertise. But, although at a less-advanced level, modular teaching is potentially more intellectually satisfying than contributing courses towards a single discipline degree. In the first place modules allow more individual autonomy in relation to subject development. But the main difference is that there is greater need and scope for creativity. The systematic integrity of the subject matter at the level of study available in any specific module must be discovered, then demonstrated - and without doing violence to the academic imperatives of honesty and truthfulness.

The future

The suggested benefits of multi-disciplinarity appear plausible, but they are essentially theoretical. It would certainly be valuable to measure whether multi-disciplinary modular degrees really do encourage flexible abstract reasoning, and whether flexible abstract reasoning really is more useful than single-discipline specialisation for the majority of graduates. Attitudes, attainments and career trajectories could be compared for single-discipline versus multi-disciplinary degrees - controlling for all relevant student variables.

But even if the majority of graduates are best served by a generic education, there will still remain a minority of students for whom the single-discipline, integrated bachelor's degree (or its equivalent) remains important. Early specialisation is necessary to reach the highest level of attainment in some areas, and some universities (such as Oxford?) will probably continue to offer integrated, single-discipline undergraduate degrees. Such institutions may evolve to occupy a position within the higher education system that is somewhat analogous to that of music colleges: accepting only an elite group of student-prodigies. Single-discipline degrees would then certify exceptionally high levels of relatively narrow disciplinary expertise, and in some subjects (mathematics and languages perhaps?) these degrees might carry exceptional prestige.

Such qualifications would suffer the potential disadvantage of an inflexible orientation, which might be damaging if the super-specialisation gamble did not pay-off. In a rapidly changing economy some specialists lose their niche, and are forced to settle either for a 'second-best' job or worse. Ironically, it is precisely this problem of early specialisation associated with a narrowly vocational aptitude and attitudinal rigidity that afflicts the academic profession; and we find ourselves ‘stuck’ in an employment sector characterised by dwindling pay, worsening conditions and declining status. Our own experience therefore provides us with a graphic demonstration of the problems, as well as the delights, of a traditional university education.

The era of multi-disciplinary degrees is upon us. Most of us fought against it, but we have lost that battle; and there are - it turns out - rich compensations. So long as we understand the constraints and capabilities of modularity, and learn how best to organise the curriculum to maximise the benefits of multi-disciplinarity, then undergraduate teaching may entering a fertile and rewarding new phase.

Bruce Charlton is a Reader in the School of Biology, University of Newcastle - bruce.charlton@ncl.ac.uk



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